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Historical analysis of left-wing British antisemitism puts Corbyn crisis in context

Philip Mendes
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Published: 4 February 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

PHILIP MENDES: Confronting Antisemitism on the Left outlines a compelling case for the British Left about the necessity of combatting antisemitism


The relationship between the political Left and the Jews, including particularly the degree of anti-Semitism prevalent within progressive circles, has long been a subject of contention.

Two recent books by self-declared British socialists have forensically examined what has been called British Labour’s antisemitism crisis. Both are well worth a read. The first text by lawyer David Renton I have mostly positively reviewed elsewhere.

Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, by railway worker and trade union representative Daniel Randall complements Renton’s work, and addresses a core limitation of that book, which was its failure to provide an historical analysis of left-wing antisemitism to contextualise the contemporary debate.

Randall is a self-described secular Jewish Socialist active in the radical Left British Trotskyist group, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL). In contrast to most of the far Left, AWL has supported Israel’s right to exist for more than three decades, and accurately characterised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a clash between two legitimate nationalisms which requires a compromise solution that is fair to both sides.

Indeed, the principled writings of leading AWL figures such as Sean Matgamna and Stan Crooke have provided a source of inspiration and hope to many progressive Jews who reject the simplistic construction by others on the ideological Left of Jewish-Israeli nationalism as inherently oppressive and conversely, Arab-Palestinian nationalism as inherently pure.

The AWL’s balanced “two states for two nations” approach informs Randall’s text, as does the earlier writings of the famous UK Jewish socialist Steve Cohen. Cohen’s classic 1984 text That’s Funny You don’t look Antisemitic, which I first read way back in 1989, taught many progressives that antisemitism on the Left was not just some minor aberration limited to a small number of cranks and xenophobes on the extreme fringes.

Rather, there was an entire history and framework of Left antisemitism dating back to the late 19th century which had never entirely abated. However, it was the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn and his radical faction to the leadership of the Labour Party, which brought these prejudiced ideas from the margins to the mainstream of the British Labour movement, and provoked an understandable backlash from Jews and many others.

Former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the British Parliament
Former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the British Parliament

Randall effectively applies Cohen’s analytical framework to these contemporary events. He modestly describes his book “as a work of polemic rather than scholarship” but in fact, he takes readers on an impressive journey of historical education by identifying three distinct stages of Left antisemitism.

The first was the mid-to-late 19th century primitive association of Jews with global capitalism and finance by prominent Left leaders such as Fourier, Proudhon, Bakunin, and even Karl Marx.

The second was the early 1950s Stalinist labelling of Jews as the leaders of an international conspiracy to undermine the security of the Soviet Bloc states as manifested most infamously in the 1952 Slansky Trial and the early 1953 Doctors Plot, and later revived in the 1967-68 mass expulsion of alleged “Zionist Jews” (who were mostly in fact life-long Communists) from Poland.

The third was the transition of Stalin’s antisemitism into a broader campaign against Zionism which ironically came to dominate the views of many far-left groups in the West that had originally formed as part of a Trotskyist or anti-Stalinist tradition.

Many of the staple arguments of radical Left anti-Zionists – that Zionism is uniquely racist, that Israeli actions are comparable to those of Nazi Germany, and that Israel is a reproduction of apartheid South Africa – are directly borrowed from their Stalinist forebears.

Randall calls this form of antisemitism “absolute anti-Zionism” because it essentialises all Zionists as an evil cohort. He notes a number of examples, including the Socialist Workers Party campaigns during the 1970s, to ban Jewish student societies on the grounds that they were Zionist and hence racist, and the recent conspiracy theories promoted by (now sacked) UK sociology academic David Miller aligning all Jews and Jewish organisations with a unified Zionist movement seeking global power.

Professor David Miller, sacked for spreading Zionist conspiracy views
Professor David Miller, sacked for spreading Zionist conspiracy views

Elsewhere, I have used the term “anti-Zionist fundamentalism” to describe this same phenomenon because it is akin to religious fundamentalism. This view constructs Israel as a racist and colonialist state which has no right to exist.

Adherents present a viewpoint opposing Israel’s existence specifically and Jewish national rights more broadly which is beyond rational debate, and unconnected to contemporary or historical reality.

In practice, it becomes, as Randall notes, a movement which malevolently targets the vast majority of Jews, who identify to some extent with the wellbeing of the State of Israel, as a political enemy.

Randall argues convincingly that many of the most striking manifestations of antisemitism within the contemporary British Labour Party hark back to the earlier primitive form of anti-Jewish racism and have absolutely nothing to do with Israel or Zionism.

Examples provided include the infamous Mear One mural attacking Jewish financiers which Jeremy Corbyn cluelessly defended, Jackie Walker’s allegation that Jews played a key role in financing the slave trade, and various conspiracy theories pertaining to the financial influence of the Rothschilds family or even more oddly, George Soros, who has been equally demonised by the far Right.

He is also very effective in explaining how and why “absolute anti-Zionism” has come to dominate the thinking of sections of the Left, noting that they unthinkingly endorse a perspective which divides the world into anti-imperialist forces (mostly arch opponents of liberal democracy such as Russia, Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, etc) versus the so-called imperialist camp led by the US and including Israel.

According to this argument, any form of anti-Zionism is progressive, and Israel should be eliminated. By such logic, ultra-Right theocratic groups in the Arab world and elsewhere that hold the antithesis of Left values in favour of a free and secular society (ensuring equality for women, gay and lesbian people, and ethnic and religious minorities), are judged as deserving of unconditional support.

He is also effective in explaining how and why 'absolute anti-Zionism' has come to dominate the thinking of sections of the Left.

One example he gives in relation to Britain is the unholy alliance between the far Left Stop the War Coalition and the Islamist Muslim Association of Britain to form the Respect Party. Even odder was the alignment between the Corbynistas and a small anti-Zionist Haredi group headed by Shraga Stern that is renowned for its extreme misogynist, homophobic and patriarchal views.

Randall traces many of the key arguments of “absolute anti-Zionism” such as the false assertion that Zionists collaborated with Nazism to Stalinist propaganda, and then astutely joins the historical dots.

He observes that Ken Livingstone’s alignment of Hitler with Zionism was not surprising given his past association with the far-left Workers Revolutionary Party including the infamous cartoons he published in 1982 of Menachem Begin in Nazi uniform.

He asks progressives to understand the lived experience of Jews as a historically oppressed people, referring both to the Holocaust in Europe, and the mass ethnic cleaning of Jews from the Arab world.

He also emphasises the political diversity within the Zionist movement, noting that today many groups such as Meretz, the Labour Party-affiliated Jewish Labor movement, the Masorti youth group Noam, Yachad and Na’amod dissent from the views of the Israeli government and their unconditional apologists.

He correctly identifies that much Left antisemitism today is political antisemitism, in contrast to the historical racist antisemitism promulgated by the far Right, a distinction I have also noted elsewhere.

But it, nevertheless, remains a form of bigotry that should be rejected by all progressives who claim to believe in universal fairness and equality. Randall urges genuinely internationalist Marxists to directly challenge and confront manifestations of Left antisemitism using strategies of public debate, polemic and community education.

One minor shortcoming of this text is Randall’s repeated argument for aligning the struggle against Left antisemitism with pro-Palestinian solidarity activism.  This is problematic for three reasons. Firstly, modern antisemitism including forms of Left antisemitism long predated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Randall himself discusses.

Secondly, although some contemporary Left antisemitism is linked to anti-Zionist fundamentalist perspectives, equally many of the most common themes of Left antisemitism – ie conspiracy theories accusing Jews of global control of finance, politics and the media – have nothing to do with real events in the Middle East.

Thirdly, there is no reason why progressives should display unqualified solidarity with Palestinian nationalism or any other nationalist movement. Rather, all nationalisms should be judged on their merits. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, this means supporting the moderates and opposing the extremists on both sides.

It should involve solidarity with those Palestinians who support a negotiated two-state solution with Israel, but equally (as Randall implicitly acknowledges) zero tolerance for Islamist fundamentalists such as Hamas who seek to replace Israel with a theocratic Arab state of Greater Palestine.

These minor quibbles aside, this text by a committed socialist should be effective in educating all open-minded sections of the Left on the necessity for combatting antisemitism, whether in its reactionary or progressive guises.

Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists (No Pasaran Media)
by Daniel Randall

Photo: Daniel Randall in London

About the author

Philip Mendes

Professor Philip Mendes is teaches Social Policy and the Welfare State at Monash University. He is the author or co-author of 13 books, including Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance, and Boycotting Israel is Wrong, co-authored with Nick Dyrenfurth.

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